Druid Hill Park in Baltimore is a shambling place crossed by potted roads and occupied by stands of trees and a museum and ballfields labeled one through six and there are old sedans parked alongside curvy curbs and you can just feel the potential for nefarious shit happening all over the place.
This is where I’m taking Max, my baseball-crazed six-year-old, in the afternoon prior to our excursion to Camden Yards to watch the Baltimore Orioles, his second-favorite team after the New York Yankees. This trip is his big birthday present.
It’s blustery and chilly, it being early April, and if it weren’t for the magic of Google maps, I’d have gotten lost on the way here. The drive from the inner harbor required a quick hop on an expressway followed by a few lefts and rights through a grim neighborhood that looks like it was something once upon a time.
The first couple of ballfields are occupied.
What if there aren’t any other fields?
How do you know?
I’ve seen a sign.
But what if there isn’t?
You’re being irrational.
What if there isn’t another field?
There is. We’re getting there now. There it is. Right over there. Over there. Right here.
I park the car.
I get out and gaze across the little road snaking its way through the park at the one unoccupied field. Not exactly unoccupied. There’s a person, an undifferentiated mass in a light-colored top. He’s like a derelict or an invasive species whose significance has not yet become apparent.
I get Max out of the car and retrieve the red, white and blue equipment bag that holds my black fielder’s glove from my glory days, a baseball, and his 22-inch brown maple bat in a special sleeve.
We walk across the lumpy outfield and find large puddles slouching on the infield like a bunch of derelicts outside a corner deli, islands of crab grass dotting the base paths. The person, on the right field side of the diamond, is a stocky white man in a beige windbreaker with a metal detector scanning the dirt.
We trudge back across the infield and I drop the equipment bag on the outfield grass, what would be left field if there were anybody willing to use this baseball diamond for something other than a hunt for buried treasure.
I pitch, using the bag as a target. Max is hitting towards the infield, towards the treasure hunter whose constantly pinging metal detector says as much about the state of the field as it does about the man’s unaccountable persistence.
Max swings and misses. He’s not used to missing. It could be the disorientation of hitting towards the infield instead of away from it, or the white sky, or the guy lurking in the background without lurking because he’s minding his own business, or tending to his garden of shit, or whatever you want to call an obsessive hunt for other people’s garbage in a universe in which our dereliction has turned everything to garbage, and where that pinging is the sound of the future reminding us of our dereliction.
Why are you pitching so far away?
This is how far I usually pitch.
You’re just not used to the perspective because the background is different from what you’re used to at home.
Just hit (the fucking ball) I say under my breath.
Finally he clubs one. He has a preternatural ability to hit a baseball. Much better than I ever was. And I was good. Okay enough to play in college anyway.
I walk after the ball, the scapular pocket under my right knee grinding away as I limp, and I am staring at the guy again, the only human around for hundreds and thousands of miles around. He has thick eyeglasses and headphones on so he can hear the metal detector beep, even though I can hear it just fine from all the way over here. He has a short spade he knifes into the dirt whenever it beeps. He kneels on the ground to dig something up and he inspects it and then shoves it into his pocket whatever it is.
I have a hilarious fucking idea.
Max, if you bean that guy over there with a hit, I’ll let you have an extra ice cream at the game tonight.
That guy way over there?
(There’s no way. There’s just no fucking way.)
Crack! He hits one. Way over there. The ball scuds through the air for about 100 feet and lands about twenty feet away from the guy kneeling over another find and takes a few hops before clipping him harmlessly on the shin.
I turn to Max and grin. That counts!
I walk towards the guy.
(I mean what are the odds?)
“No problem,” he says, flipping me the ball.
Now I feel bad. I made him the butt of a private joke. Not very empathy-inducing.
Find anything good?
“I found a gold ring,” he says. He takes his glove off – I hadn’t noticed he is wearing thick workman’s gloves with red at the tip of the fingers so you don’t accidentally lose a digit.
From about 5 yards away, he flashes me the ring he’s wearing on his pinky.
“That’s a great find,” I say.
“Doesn’t happen every day. It beeps the same whether it’s a pull tab or a gold ring. You have to dig up a lot of pull tabs for every gold ring you find. It doesn’t happen very often.”
What did he say to you?
The guy? Nothing. He found a gold ring.
I guess he doesn’t like baseball.
Why do you say that?
He didn’t say good hit.